Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Mailbag

Mailbag: Water Fluoridation and Human Genetic Variation

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

Fluoride occurs naturally in many forms of drinking water, because it is leached from the bedrock where it occurs in the form of calcium fluoride and other compounds. Sometimes, fluoride is added into the drinking water where this natural source does not exist or is too little. Water fluoridation in drinking water prevents cavities (and contributes to equalizing dental health across socioeconomic groups), but the concentration is not large enough to cause harm.

There is an important limitation with water fluoridation, and that is that it is typically applied in an one-size-fits-all instead of tailoring the amount to the needs of the community. However, the objections to water fluoridation that you might find on the Internet and social media in particular is batshit conspiracy theories that water fluoridation sterilizes people and lowers their IQ despite the fact that the human populations has exploded in size during the past 100 years and IQ steadily rises over time due to the Flynn effect. Earlier, Debunking Denialism published a refutation of the claim that if you add fluoride, you should supposedly have no problem adding arsenic. This is, of course, completely wrong in so many different ways.

The second topic in this mailbag is that of human genetic variation. These issues are often misunderstood by so-called race realist who argues that modern genomics have validated pseudoscientific superstitions about human diversity from the 1700s. Why race realists are mistaken on the facts was discussed in Modern High-Throughput Genomics Versus Race Realism and dozens other on this websites.

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Mailbag: Modern High-Throughput Genomics Versus Race Realism

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

With access to constant media reporting from around the world, it is hard to ignore stories about economy, elections, crimes and war. A lot of this news reporting involve coverage that is in some way related to differences within and between countries in terms of poverty and richness, ethnic tensions, scientific progress and lack of basic resources for life. It is understandable that we often ask ourselves about the nature of such differences, how they came about, what they mean, and how we can approach them.

However, dark clouds often appear on the horizon. Political and religious groups claim to have the truth on these matters and that their particular narrative of the nature and causes of, and solutions to, world problems should be preferred over others. These are often based on ideology and beliefs, rather than the result of scientific research and rational thinking. Typically, these narratives have a substantial flaw: they are simplistic and only include a single factor or perhaps a few, while and ignore the multifactorial nature of complex problems. It is tempting to be lured into simplistic explanations for a complex world, because they are cognitively easy and allows us to put blame on one group or a few groups of people. However, they are often as false as they are naive. Instead, we should banish proposed “explanations” that try to explain a complex societal processes with simplistic causes.

After reading some of the articles on Debunking Denialism about the scientific problems with race realism, RH decided to send me an email about some of the issues he was thinking about. The topics involve genetics, heritability, inventions, poverty, national economy, crime, history, and politics.

High-throughput modern genetic studies finds very low between-group genetic variation

RH writes:

I mean how can you argue against racialism/race realism and say humanity is one race when the world just seems to contradict that?

The general answer to this question is that we must not be misled by how the world seems. Instead, we must boldly explore beyond the limited scope of our own personal beliefs and biases by testing them against broad scientific data without being selective and seeing what we want to see.

When scientists carry out high-throughput genomics research and look at 650 000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and close to 400 microsatellites, they find that the vast majority of human genetic variation, ranging from 84.7%-95% depending on the study and genetic elements, occurs within populations (Li et al., 2008; Rosenberg et al., 2002). Only a tiny minority of genetic variation occurs between continental groups. Thus, the available scientific evidence strongly disagree with the race realist position. Instead, human genetic diversity is better described as mostly continuous clines, with a few rare exceptions (Serre and Pääbo, 2004). Certainly, there is still a scientific debate about details as in many other areas, but this is the mainstream scientific position with regards to human genetic diversity.

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Mailbag: Comment Spam, Geoengineering and Chemtrails

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

A really annoying aspect of combating pseudoscientific nonsense on the Internet is that within a relatively short time period, a skeptic soon starts to know more about a specific denialist claim than the denialists themselves. This is because the denialist, of course, just knows what he or she knows, but the skeptic is exposed to many denialists that put forward different patches of the same conspiracy theory or claim in question. Since there is no independent way to support pseudoscientific nonsense (no repair mechanism), it mutates as it is spread around the Internet. Together with the fact that very few new arguments are used by denialists (since they often just recycle old claims), this means that, sometimes, the crank or quack makes a claim that is just incoherent and the skeptic is forced to figure out which precise claim the denialist was referring to. Sometimes, this is just a matter of confusing some minor detail, but in other cases there is so much disconnect between the original pseudoscientific argument and the way it is delivered by a crank on the Internet. Most of the time, it is somewhere in between.

This was the case for a reader comment left by someone calling themselves Jennie. It was left on a Facebook post about the deceptive tactics used by alleged psychics, but it had to do with something completely different, namely chemtrails and geoengineering:

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Mailbag: Real Vaccine Risks?

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

Nothing in the world is 100% safe or 100% effective. Everything you do carries some degree of risk: you can get hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, choke when drinking water, accidentally fall when walking on gravel and so on. The challenge is to figure out if the benefits of something outweigh the risks, and if that is the case, then the product is reasonably safe and effective. It the risks clearly outweigh the benefits, the product is unsafe or ineffective.

These challenges are given substantial attention in the research and development of all medical products and certainly vaccines. This is due to several reasons: a dangerous product would be unlikely to pass the stringent regulatory checks and safeguards, a dangerous vaccine would just be pulled of the market, there is a very small profit margin for vaccines compared with other products (since most vaccines are only given once or a couple of times during life compared with other products that need to be taken every day) etc.

There are real risks with vaccines (as with any medical product), but these are either mild or very, very rare. However, what greatly irritates scientists, medical doctors and scientific skeptics is that anti-vaccine activists make up imaginary risks that are either enormously scientifically implausible (that smallpox vaccines turned people into cows) or have been repeatedly refuted by a massive amount of scientific research (such as most modern anti-vaccine claim). Read more of this post

Mailbag: Genetically Modified Foods and Immigration Statistics

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

Selective skepticism both amuses and frightens me at the same time. It is the approach whereby you accept the mainstream scientific position on a great many things (such as HIV/AIDS, vaccines, 9/11 etc.), but then have cordoned off a special area where you promote pseudoscientific nonsense and believe in all sorts of unreasonable things (say, you are anti-GMO or anti-psychiatry). To an external observer, it is a trivial lack of consistency, especially since most forms of pseudoscience share the same basic rhetoric: quote scientists out of context, misunderstand basic science, play the martyr card, create fake “controversies” and so on. Selective skepticism is closely related to pseudoskepticism, whereby a person gives a shallow pretense of being a scientific skeptic but shares almost none of the substantive content of scientific skepticism.

In this post, I will examine a couple of emails and comments received about genetically modified foods and immigration statistics. Those topics are not directly related, but they share the basic premise of selective skepticism or pseudoskepticism.

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Mailbag: Actually, Science Isn’t Self-Refuting

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

Why is it so hard to argue with proponents of pseudoscience? In a previous post about the necessity of non-arbitrary axioms, it was speculated that this might depend on the fact that various cranks and quacks have fundamentally different ideas about what exists, the nature of knowledge and how to reach reasonable conclusions about the world around us. Three arguments were deployed against the rejection of axiomatic starting points: it is self-referentially incoherent, it leads to a rejection of knowledge and anything will be true if you assume a contradiction. When faced with this issue, some people appeal to coherentism or claim that science too must share these issues.

Science is not self-refuting

A comment recently submitted by a person going under the name of “The Adversary” tried to execute a similar pirouette. Although not relevant enough to be part of a reasoned discussion, refuting the claims therein can be useful for understanding the opponents of scientific rationality:

You realise [sic] that the scientific method also shares this key feature, right? If you say that the scientific method is not about reaching absolute truth, you are also expressing an implicit liar paradox. Is not the proposition that there is no absolute truth itself considered an absolute truth and therefore immediately self-refuting?

Scientific research is not about reaching absolute truth. So far so good. However, this does not constitute a claim that absolute truth does not exist. It is merely the humble admission that science, although very successful as a method for reaching reasonable conclusions about reality, is not all-powerful. Scientists are humans and can be subject to the same cognitive biases as anyone else. The strength of science, however, comes from its ability to self-correct and carry out independent tests. So no, science is not self-refuting.

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Mailbag: Skeptical Meanness and Anti-Immigration Extremism

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

What kind of comments should one except on a post discussing skeptical principles in relation to paranormal beliefs? Rebuttals to “unexplained does not mean unexplainable”? Critical discussion of concepts like belief and irrationality? Not even remotely close. Turns out that topics such as the alleged meanness of skeptics and recycled myths about immigration are far more interesting to some commenters.

Toby writes:

Very well-written, informative post. But you overly poo-poo the idea that skeptics launch mean-spirited attacks. Maybe there’s a cordial spirit at work in the higher echelons of skeptical discussion. But mention any belief in God on, say, a YouTube site or any other open discussion group and you hear the same, unimaginative taunts: “So, you believe in a magical, invisible Sky Daddy? How nice. Do you also believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? And the Zombie Jew?” (The prolific appearance of these same insults over and over doesn’t speak very highly of the mainstream skeptic’s capacity for originality.)

The “but skeptic’s are not original!” quibble can quickly be dispatched. If comparisons make a valid point, why change it? The second point about alleged meanness assumes that religious beliefs should be given special considerations. Hardly anyone of the “skeptic’s are mean!” make the same objection against movie or food critics whose condemnations of horribly bad cinema or stale and tasteless cuisine can be just as harsh and filled with mockery. For some reason, many people want to give religion a special pass and are appalled at the mere suggestion that religious beliefs run counter to rational considerations of scientific evidence.

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Mailbag: Fetishizing Richard Lewontin

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

The commenter Foma left the following comment on an unrelated post that I thought might be useful to expand into a more detailed treatment covering the problems with race realism, how race realists misunderstand heritability and their obsessive fetishizing of scientist Richard Lewontin.

Hey Emil, what do you think of Gregory Cochran’s latest post about Lewontin? Is it factual or isn’t?

The post in question is Lewontin wins the Crafoord Prize written by race realist Gregory Cochran. What is race realism, who is Lewontin and are the claims by Cochran reasonable or not?

Race realists are individuals who believe that modern genetic research has vindicated racial divisions created in the 1700s. They often rationalize this belief by appealing to trivial misunderstandings of published research or outright pseudoscience. One of their main targets over the last couples of decades have been evolutionary biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin. Why? It all goes back to experiments done in the late 1960s through late 1970s. Using gel electrophoresis, he was able to show that individual of the model organism called common fruit fly were more genetically diverse than previously thought, and thus ushered in a revolution in population genetics. For this and related research, he was rewarded with the 2015 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences.

Lewontin and human genetic variation

Later, he used a similar approach to argue that most of human variation occurred within populations and not between them and argued that the concept of race was not that useful or important when it comes to humans.

However, Lewontin’s argument was incomplete as his analysis was on the level of a single locus. Critics, such as A. W. F. Edwards, lamented that there could be correlations between different loci and that this could offer a justification for traditional racial categories. Modern studies, such as Li et al. (2008) and Rosenberg et al. (2002), that look at 300+ loci and 650 000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms show that the vast majority of human genetic variation (e. g. 93-95%) is to be found within human population and only a tiny fraction between them (e. g. 3-5%). So although the original argument by Lewontin had an important limitation, his conclusion is supported by modern genetic research.

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Mailbag: Richard Polt Responds (Reductionism in Science)

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

For most scientists, the term “reductionism” represents a profoundly successful way of understanding features of our world as composed of smaller parts and a fuller investigation of those features involves a detailed understanding of their parts and how their interaction with each other and the environment cause higher-level properties. A classic example is surface tension: pure water consists of nothing but molecules of H20 and their complex interaction creates the feature we know as surface tension. Yet surface tension does not exist on the level of individual water molecules, but a feature that occurs on a higher level of analysis without there being anything “magical” with water in addition to those individual water molecules.

For sophisticated mysterians and proponents of pseudoscience, the term “reductionism” has the power to turn warm smiles into distorted snarls. The practice, according to these critics, amounts to turning conscious humans with moral character, free will and an appreciation for art to nothing but amoral and ugly meat machines who are callously manipulated by brain chemicals and a deterministic universe, like puppeteers controlling their marionettes.

One such sophisticated mysterian is Richard Polt, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University, and Debunking Denialism previously published a critical analysis of his opposition to reductionism. In summary, Polt confused hierarchical reductionism (the reductionism used by mainstream science as described in the first paragraph) with greedy reductionism (the faulty version of reductionism described in the second paragraph). Greedy reductionism is thus nothing but (no pun intended) a false caricature and does nothing refute hierarchical reductionism.

Polt recently wrote a short response to that piece:

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Mailbag: Faith Healing for Schizophrenia is a Bad Idea

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

In a previous post, I explored the pseudoscientific belief that schizophrenia is the result of demonic possession. In reality, schizophrenia is a psychiatric condition that results from a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors. The Journal of Religion and Health (impact factor 0.8) had published a paper by M. Kemal Irmak falsely claiming that hallucinations are just misinterpretations of real sensory information caused by demons. What evidence did Irmak present for this astonishing view? None whatsoever.

In response to that post, Michael wrote me the following email (additional personal information has been redacted):

I came across your blog while researching the use of folk healing methods for believed possession states in light of the new DSM diagnosis for Dissociative Identity Disorder. Specifically I saw your response to Irmak’s paper attributing hallucinations by persons with schizophrenia as caused by demonic activity. I certainly understand your argument against the etiology Mr. Irmak is advancing. My question is more on the treatment side […]. If a Turkish patient with schizophrenia believes that their symptoms are caused by djinn/demons, sees a faith healer and experiences a treatment consistent with social-cultural-religious understandings, could it be argued that this is a good treatment if the person has a reduction in their symptoms? It seems that there is evidence these approaches have better “recovery” rates for chronic psychosis than the medication-heavy methods in the West. (I am not saying no one should take anti-psychotics. […])

In other words, can faith healing be a valid part of a culture competent treatment program for schizophrenia if it was associated with a reduction in symptoms?

I am not a psychiatrists, psychologist, psychotherapist or any other kind of mental health professional, so I cannot give any medical advice in regards to treatments for individuals with schizophrenia above the mainstream standard of care, which is not limited to antipsychotics, but include cognitive behavioral therapy, rehabilitation and other treatments.

Cultural competence is crucial for psychotherapists who work with culturally and ethnically diverse clients. Otherwise, there is a risk of miscommunication, collapse of the therapeutic alliance and treatment failure. This means taking into account how culture and ethnicity can influence affect and behavior, individual versus collective goals, culture-specific beliefs about mental health and psychiatric conditions, value systems, relationship between treatment provider and client and so on. At the same time, psychotherapists should not fall for simplistic stereotypes of clients from different cultures or of different ethnic backgrounds.

What role does traditional cultural treatments play in culturally competent psychiatric treatment? Can faith healing be a valid part of a culture competent treatment program for schizophrenia if it was associated with a reduction in symptoms? The following arguments are from the standpoint of scientific skepticism and should not be considered medical advice.

First, we need to examine precisely what is meant by “symptom reduction”. Read more of this post

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